‘A PERMA-FARM MAY NOT HELP YOU PAY FOR A NEW SMARTPHONE, BUT IT WILL KEEP YOU ON YOUR TOES, CONNECTING THE DOTS AND TRYING TO KEEP THE CYCLE GOING IN THE BEST POSSIBLE WAY’
We’re using sheet mulching to mimic how the forest eliminates unwanted plant material. We’re doing it to improve soil quality. We’ve layered the ground with vegetable waste, manure, leaves and straw and will leave it like this for a few months. LAURA CHRISTIE KHANNA, 29, who runs a permafarm in Panchgani with husband Kunal Khanna HOW IT WORKS
Volunteers work on the farms for five hours, six days a week, in return for food and lodging, and the hands-on experience. Interns may earn an additional stipend depending on their skill sets and expertise.
From rainwater harvesting and reviving local ponds to introducing plant diversity, they’ve engineered change in these fields. “We’ve explained the importance of dividing land into zones so that you can grow food for self-sustenance and for commercial use,” says Singh, 37.
Some of the farmers now grow wheat, ragi and peas for themselves, and mushrooms for sale. Many have begun commercial beekeeping, selling the honey and benefiting from the natural pollination.
“We are planning to dig little ponds to harvest rainwater and sustain local fish, which is an additional source of income,” adds Singh. This water, which is richer in nutrients, is used to irrigate the farm and improve soil fertility. Economist Kunal Khanna, 32, and his wife Laura Christie Khanna, 29, moved from Australia to his family plot in Panchgani in 2018, to live a farm life. Laura had done a PDC in Australia, and decided to convert their barren 1-acre plot.
“The soil was hard laterite clay overgrown with weeds. We removed them and sowed a cover crop of legumes to improve soil health,” she says. Then they left, on a one-month trip to Europe.
“We actually hoped to come home to a good harvest,” says Kunal, laughing. “We had got an important step wrong. When we returned we found 98% of the seeds hadn’t sprouted, and the weeds were back, and growing more aggressively.”
The couple decided to take it more seriously, and have started sheet mulching, which tries to mimic natural forest processes to eliminate unwanted plant material and improve soil quality. “We have layered the soil with vegetable waste, manure, leaves and straw and will leave it like this for a few months,” says Laura.
They plan to grow cucumber, zucchini, basil, tomato and watermelon, for consumption and sale.
They’re using their own grey water (reusable waste water from baths, kitchen sinks, washing machines etc) for irrigation, which means they’ve had to make a few big lifestyle changes to ensure chemicals don’t kill their crops.
“I use only natural products like shikakai in my hair, and yoghurt as a natural conditioner,” Laura says. “Besan makes for an excellent face wash and we use ash and lemon rind to clean our vessels.”
Their next big step will be building a compost toilet that will turn excreta into compost. “So far, visiting relatives have been in awe of how we’ve managed to change our entire lifestyle, but I don’t know if having to use a compost toilet will change their opinion,” she laughs. When Peter Fernandes and Rosie Harding, both 49, started growing organic vegetables about seven years ago in their 600sq-m kitchen garden in Goa, it was because they wanted fresh, chemical-free produce.
By 2014, they had heard about an online PDC by Geoff Lawton, an Australian student of Bill Mollison, and were intrigued.
“We signed up for the six-month course, which isn’t as intense as the 12-day ones,” says Fernandes. The online course offers video clips, e-books and a 24x7 community of permaculture farmers and instructors.
“This gives you enough time to try things and come back with doubts and questions, which was so helpful,” he says.
Their home is now surrounded by poultry, guinea fowl, an apiary, and scores of edible plants and trees, including mango, guava, orange, gourds, spinach, beans, herbs and chillies, none of which is sold.
“Not having any commercial commitments helps us experiment with changing layouts,” Fernandes says.
For money, they depend on their savings. “A permaculture kitchen garden may not help you buy a new smartphone or take an international vacation, but it will keep on your toes, excited about connecting all the dots and trying to keep the cycle going in the best possible way.”
But one can’t dive in expecting a solution to your farming problems. “You don’t learn to farm when you do a PDC, you just learn to work, and eventually live, by a different set of ethics and principles.”
Recognise local conditions, learn about rainfall patterns, visit other local gardens.
Figure out ways to conserve resources, particularly water; this includes rainwater harvesting, recycling grey water etc.
Design a system that promotes self-reliance. Yield also covers the exchange of skills and information from one gardener to another.
(Clockwise from above) N Koppula’s 11.5-acre perma-farm in Telangana. ‘It’s not just a set of farming techniques, but ideally a system that evolves with little human interference, where flora and fauna co-exist, and even benefit from each other,’ he says.A home is handsculpted by volunteers on the Geeli Mitti farm in Nainital. As you minimise your impact on the earth, permaculture invariably leads to changes in lifestyle.Harvests tend to be small. This bunch of radish was the first on Laura Khanna’s 1-acre farm in Panchgani.One of the 12 principles of permaculture involves spreading the word and working with traditional farmers in the area.